Summer Ascendant

A sea of faces lit up upon his appearance at the door. Golden in the light from the chandeliers, smooth, and flashing white teeth, they broke into a single swell of wordless greeting. Max didn’t recognize a single one of them.

He showed his own teeth back, smiling, happy. They were here for him, that was enough. The day of his birth commenced, celebrations over several days, summer ascendant. Max stepped into the throng. He drank down the well-wishes, the envy, like champagne in fine crystal.

Painted women laughed into the curve of his side, coiffed men threw arms around his shoulders. Many times he was drawn out onto the dance floor. They celebrated the night Max, by virtue of being born all those twenty-six years ago, had given them. Max was content with that. He basked in the warmth of their once-removed appreciation.

And then a single glass among many that night raised his way. Max watched his father, conservatively tucked amidst a group of similarly somberly dressed men, toast him. His own champagne soured in his stomach. Unbidden thoughts crashed past the adorers’ rabble, had Max laughed too loud, drank too much, smiled too little, forgotten an unforgettable name.

Max pulled at his collar and looked for distraction. But the bright gold of the party reflected his thoughts back, had he acted the fool? Who’d seen him? What would his father do tomorrow about it?  He abandoned his glass on a passing tray and hurried from the center of the sunny crowd.

The dancers shifted to the floor as the opening notes floated from the band. A girl, rust hair in tendrils framing her face, cast him a heavy-lidded look through the golden light as he left. Max pretended not to see the invitation to his invitation and followed a prickle of cold air that might lead him outside. This time he was sitting out. The chill promised a dark sky untainted by sweat, perfume, and judgement.

I have stolen, as I am want to do, a line from a dear friend. I took This time he was sitting out. from a Librarian as part of the Legal Theft project. 


Dares, Dinner, Doctors

Reid skidded his bike into the yard, keeping it upright just long enough to snatch the greasy bags from the basket. He left the bike fallen beside the porch, no kid in the neighborhood would dare steal something of his, and took the steps up to the front door two at a time.

Inside, he was forced to pause. The stairs were blocked by the pear-shaped behind of the group home’s foster mother. She turned when the screen door clacked against the wall.

“Eula.” Reid greeted with insolent familiarity. He tried to take his spoils down the hall instead. Eula stopped him easily with her bulk as she stepped off the stairs, moving one hip and then the other to block his way down the dingy hallway. She looked down at the twelve year old.

“Mr. Bao, that looks like dinner. Did you bring enough for everyone?”

Stalled, he was forced to lock his arms awkwardly away from himself so the food wouldn’t knock against his legs. From the kitchen he could hear the portentous clatter and shriek of the other kids. Reid scoffed, “no. Its for Vin and me.”

Eula took a step and, as always, Reid refused to give ground.  She loomed now, large to his sharp shouldered, pre-puberty height. He’d seen her bodily haul a stocky seventeen-year-old out the back door. He eyed the space between the wall and the stairs, calculating his odds, until she spoke with a sigh, “Your brother is at the doctor today. Come have dinner with everyone else.”

“No one told me that.” Reid said and swallowed, running through accident and foul play. One of the bags slipped from his cramping grip and hit the carpet. Reid didn’t pick it up. “He isn’t sick. Why is he there?”

“Shhh. Its alright.”

Her clucking shush made sparks of red go off in his eyes, but Reid swallowed and adopted the courteous tone he used with teenagers bigger than him. “When is he coming back?” he asked.

“Tonight of course.” Eula shook her head as if the answer was obvious. It wasn’t. Children disappeared all the time from this house. Reid watched them come and go. But never with doctors.

“You should be happy for him, Reid. They think they can help him,” Eula said. He remembered Vin’s quiet signs weeks ago, the way his careful fingers had told Reid about the doctors coming to the home. One had even signed with Vin, but most had just spoken to Eula.

“Vin doesn’t need help.” Reid stated. Eula made a purring noise of acknowledgement but not agreement. She picked up the fallen bag and plucked the other one from his hand, putting an end to any argument about dinner, doctors, or Vin. In the kitchen the howling had grown louder.

“Come eat. Or don’t. Its up to you Mr. Bao.”

Reid swayed a little, debating his bike outside, but ultimately followed Eula into the kitchen. It would still be there if Vin didn’t come home.


Hungry and Underlit

He rolled his arm underhand and spun her keys high into the air. They arced against the black sky, catching the sliding light of the yellow streetlamp and landed unseen on the roof far above their little group. Blair followed the arc with her eyes and kept her chin angled up, fixed on the point where keys disappeared.

“Now you have to keep hanging out with us,” He said. While the rest exclaimed with surprise and gleeful outrage he wheezed a laugh. When Blair didn’t move or gasp or giggle, he leaned around, trying to draw her eyes.  The group continued without them. Their shrieking amusement received side-eyes from the native bar-goers.

The slope of Blair’s shoulders turned to iron when he dared rest a hand there. He quickly took his hand back and stepped away.  “Got a few more places to hit. This street has to have some truly revolting dives.”

Blair’s face was hardened amber in the streetlight.

“Oh, come on, I’ll just call my driver after this next place. It was a joke.” He said, voice rising. Next to her stubbornly cold silence his words came edged and whiny. Their group stopped down the way, their discomfort drawing the attention of the sidewalk smokers. Phone screens blinked to life. A blue blood public meltdown was a rare and lucrative delight whether via blackmail, tabloid news, or the sheer delight of ruining a brat’s night.

People called to others inside the dives. They appeared at the bar’s exits, the alleys, all leaning out to gawk at the now shifting teens. Recording lights blinked at phone corners, lighting up the night around them like crimson gnats.

Blair took a step backwards and the sharp heel of her boot scraped the sidewalk. Phones and faces swiveled to her, hungry and underlit.

Strangers in Summertime

Vera stepped out of the rusty pickup before it reached a full stop, waving her thanks from a distance. The truck kicked into gear and sped off, leaving Vera at the edge of town between the wild cotton of the highway and the limp trees at the edge of Haleyville. Vera rolled her hair up off the back of her neck and started walking.

The trees got closer together, planted to frame front porches and shade long dirt drives. More than one dusty dog lifted its head to watch Vera pass from behind their fence. The road got better, less crumbly and soft under her thin-soled sneakers as the houses turned to shop fronts. Streamers hung from the streetlamps and a grand banner loomed over the main street advertising “Summer Days.”

As if summer needed an announcement, Vera thought. A sweat drop tickled a line from her hair to the back of her bra. Vera kicked a spare bit of streamer that had freed itself to litter the brick sidewalk.

“You here for the fair?”

Vera turned and squinted towards the question. A ruddy-cheeked man in a green baseball cap smiled a close-lipped line at her. From behind the shop front windows, Vera could see ovals of faces watching them. Vera reminded herself that this was one of those states that hated strangers but were nice and polite about it, as opposed to the ones that liked them fine, but were utter arseholes. “Yes, sir. Just arrived.”

“Welcome. My name’s Henry. You have family here Miss–?” He asked, returning her squint. The smile didn’t slip, but his watery eyes were chilly in the heat.

“Nah, just travelling through on my way to Locust Fork. I’m Vera Klein.” Vera shrugged her shoulders and looked around at the mostly empty square. No one had family here unless they were here, it was that sort of place.  She flashed him a dazzling smile. “Winfield had the nicest things to say about your summer fair, had to see for myself.  But I find myself wilting.” She panted a little.

Hospitality forced his hand and he pointed to one of the storefronts windows, shaded by striped blue and white. “There’s a diner just here. Pam’s. She’s good people.”

“Heard that from Winfield too,” Vera said. Henry’s chill melted a bit. He led her across the town square. Under the overhang, Vera let him hold the door and she murmured something about gentlemen just loud enough for him to hear. The diner’s air was light and cool enough to burn her nose. Accompanied by a local, Vera received only curious looks when she sat at the diner bar.

The questions would come later, but they’d arrive over beer cans and whiskey, and those were easier to turn aside. For now, Vera dipped a grateful nod towards her temporary escort and a sweet, slightly vulnerable, smile at the motherly woman coming to take her order.

This Music Challenge, Raw Rambles had me write something to or inspired by Billie Holiday’s Summertime.  Check out Raw Rambles piece here. 

Gaping Maws

Pale fireworks went off in the black. Orion pressed the heels of his palms into eyes until they throbbed, trying to banish the sparkling patterns. Hands grabbed at him, too many hands. Orion bucked his back like a caught cat.  The effort began a new bursting agony in his skull.

The hands grasped him tighter, the lights spread, gaping maws of fire unfurled before him. Orion blacked out before he could un-clench his jaw enough to scream.

He awoke with a prick and hard twinge in the veins of his inner elbow. His headache beat in time with his pulse, but no light or fire burned behind his eyelids. Orion opened one eye. The ceiling was water-stained. He was on a musty couch.

“Oh good, that worked.” Indi lowered the syringe, cold curiosity in her eyes. They were mostly alone in a little gray apartment. Orion could see the shadow of one of Indi’s bruisers waiting around the corner. That was normal. Indi was a small woman, all skinny angles. But competently trading, trafficking, and selling illicit substances required only brains and charisma. Physical brutality and violence could be outsourced.

“My stuff?” Orion croaked, closing his eyes. Without sight, the couch’s scent of old weed and mold became overpowering. He’d be throwing out these clothes then. Santoni Italian leather or not, the shoes would probably go too. Orion took a breath and pushed himself to a head-splitting sitting position.

“Yes, from your pocket. You’re diabetic?” Indi held up the leather medicine case and slipped the syringe back inside. She passed it to him politely. She stood, her long skirt creased by the ragged carpet.

“No.” Orion looked around the apartment. It was a new place, but then most times he met Indi, it was at a new place.

“Uh huh.” Indi’s expression cooled, still curious. He’d turned from opportunity to opposition in the span of a syllable. She took a step back and eyed him up and down. “You collapsed. Jay brought you here. Otherwise…-”

“Otherwise, you’d have lost your best client.” Orion found his wit with a grimace. The headache still throbbed in time with the keening thought that this had been the worst episode yet, he’d seen things this time. He smiled through the mental sirens. “No need to get mushy.”

Orion frowned when Indi just nodded. They had business. Orion pushed his concern over his dealer’s curiosity, and the swelling certainty that something was very wrong with him, away.

Playing Cards and Potatoes

The Eristae royal kitchens were a sight to behold and Lena occasionally, despite calling them home for over a month now, took a moment to admire their prodigious operation. Panting servers ducked around red-faced cooks attending to flame and steam. Today though, Lena didn’t have time for awe, or really anything. The visiting Cetzan priests were finishing off a toporifically massive midday meal and would be retiring to their rooms for an afternoon nap. This would give the Eristaen king, Aron, a chance to prepare for the nights festivities and Lena’s staff to do the same.

Lena came in from the servant’s yards, her skirts tied up around her knees like any common kitchen girl with a small bundle of letters in her arms. She’d run through them with Aron later and was looking forward to dishing out the more malign messages and missives like the latest gossip. For now, she pocketed the mail and rolled up her sleeves.

The door was guarded by a boy flipping a card between his fingers, trying to get it to disappear. Lena bustled past and he didn’t even look up. She stopped and plucked the card away from him. “Tomas, scrimshanking?”

“Scrim what?” Tomas looked up with an annoyed frown. When he recognized her round face and smooth black hair, he crunched up his neck like a turtle. “Lady Zinn, wasn’t scrim anything, swear it on the crown,” he said as he scrambled to his feet.

“Tomas, we have a two dozen Cetzans to feed, do you know what Cetzan priests do with children who misbehave?” Lena crossed her arms. Around them people put their noses to their tasks, no one daring martyrdom for the lazy boy’s sake. Lena, despite her bright and bouncy disposition, could give tongue lashing to make any school marm proud. Tomas shook his head and Lena answered, “they rip out their hearts.”

“And eat them?” Tomas eyes widened to nearly perfect circles.

“Maybe, especially if those potatoes aren’t ready by first plating.” She snapped her fingers and he scurried by her tied skirts, disappearing past the counters and bustle of the cooks and kitchen servants. Lena shook her head but did not dwell.

Like a warlord amidst generals, Lena reviewed her plan for supper, dinner, dessert, and after-party with her staff. She dug her hands in dough, instructing a timid kitchen maid as she folded the sticky mass. When an unfortunate cook reeled back from a blossom of flame, Lena took the pan over, massaging the heat down. Not a plate emerged from the kitchen without her touch.

Lena looked up after the soup went out, expecting to see the beginnings of thinly cut, creamy potatoes. The counter was empty. “Where are my potatoes?” She asked and people floundered, each looking to those beside them to find blame. Lena jerked her apron off and stalked towards the larder.

The deep, earthy room was dim and cool. Full bushels of spices hung from the rafters, dusty rows of pickled and canned goods stocked the floor to ceiling shelves. Lena swayed around barrels of apples, pomegranates, and yams, following a curious trail of fallen potatoes to the back of the larder. She expected to find Tomas lazing about, playing a game, perhaps napping. Instead she found a single playing card at the base of a shelf.

She picked the creased card up, pausing while bent at the waist. Beneath the shelf, now visible in her bow, was a stripe of empty black. A open space behind the sturdy wood. Lena frowned. The shelf itself was cocked, leaning forward ever so slightly on the right.

Lena straightened and with a tentative touch, tugged the shelf towards her. The secret door swung at its hinges and Lena faced a clean smelling passage of smooth stone. It ascended upwards slightly and quickly into utter dark. Lena sucked in a breath and almost stepped away, until she noted the small pale square of an old playing card lying just inside the black interior.

Her fingers curled around her skirts. Memories of her own brother’s ill-fated adventures and decisions coiled in the back of her mind. Lena huffed a breath and stepped forward, stalking into the passage to find her kitchen boy.

Its been a while since I’ve done one of Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie‘s Wordle challenges, but I’m happy to be back. 

Poise and Punctuality

The alcohol pressed his eyes forward towards the road, which slid in and out of his attention. The car’s correctional navigation kept him from spinning off the coastal highway and the bloated and broken death in the waves below. Orion patted the steering wheel.”Maybe not tonight,” he said to the sunset glaring off the windshield.

Up from the cliffs, the road wound into the green hills of the California coast’s landed gentry. Acres of rolling grapes stretched in either direction, flat enough to open wide the evening sky. Orion turned the car from the narrow road to a broad private drive, past a gate that took his invitation, and then up towards the champagne colored lights of the grand house. Still half a mile off, Orion could imagine the thrum beneath the chandeliers and garden lights.

He pressed the car forward up the gracefully curved drive into the gravel of the courtyard. The motor screamed angrily as he skid straight from second gear to the stop, When his tires ceased kicking up the hosts landscaping, the stricken valet waived him down with both hands. Orion kicked open the car door.

His father waited at the bottom of the front stairs, hands in his pockets, watching Orion stand from car. Orion should have suspected. They’d taken his invitation at the gate miles below, plenty of time to call up.

“Do you know how late you are?” His father asked when Orion wandered up to the steps and into the champagne colored lighting. Orion had not inherited his father’s height and wide shoulders, and he lacked the high ground. Loomed over, stared down at, Orion shrugged. Behind them, gravel sprayed and the valet vanished with Orion’s car. Inside the sounds of the party continued, loud but too distant to provide Orion any hope for rescue.

“My attendance was required, if it kills you, your words. Nothing was said of punctuality.” Orion explained with flippant look towards the waiting festivities inside.

“You represent this family–” Orion’s father breathed the words, face rigid and still. That caught his son’s attention back.

The familiar threat tightened Orion’s throat with a taste of old fear. He sneered to build himself up against it. “A gilded front to cover rot —  I suppose I do.”

Orion had a second to enjoy that mean smile before his father grabbed his shirt front. Poise failed him for instinct and Orion cringed away, hands grasping ineffectually at his father’s wrists.

“If you embarrass me tonight, I’ll find something you can’t smile and shrug off. Understood?” The question came calmly, and his father let him hang speechless. When Orion failed to summon another sneer or a sarcastic response he was let go to stumble back. Orion breathed jerkily, staring with contempt-twisted features at his now perfectly serene father.

“Clean yourself up and come inside. And do be punctual.” His father added with a cruel smile and left Orion out on the steps.

This week I challenged Raw Rambles to write something to or inspired by The Mountain Goats This Year.  See her’s here. I did the same, which you can see above.